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Brother MFC-490CW review: Brother MFC-490CW

Brother MFC-490CW

Justin Yu Associate Editor / Reviews - Printers and peripherals
Justin Yu covered headphones and peripherals for CNET.
Justin Yu
7 min read

After giving the Brother MFC-5890CN a not-so-great review, we weren't breaking down doors with excitement over the step-down model. We expected another unstylish device marred by mechanical imperfections and unsuitable for any environment where productivity is a factor. Fortunately for Brother, this $130 all-in-one is actually a better printer than its pricier cousin. Higher-quality prints, a 3.3-inch wide-screen LCD for light photo editing and scrolling through menus, and a low cost to print put it in the same class as the Canon Pixma MX330 or the HP Officejet J4680, even though the Brother's print speeds still can't keep up with the competition. If you're hungry for extra features like Wi-Fi and convert-to-text, check out the MFC-5890CN, but we're still calling the Canon MX330 the most versatile and high-quality all-in-one printer for less than $150.


Brother MFC-490CW

The Good

Triple-interface connectivity includes USB, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet LAN; inexpensive; small and stylish.

The Bad

Taxing print head produces slow-moving prints; suffers the same mechanical errors affecting other Brother printers; photo quality can use improvement.

The Bottom Line

The Brother MFC-490CW is an improvement over the more expensive MFC-5890CN, but that still doesn't excuse its drudging print speeds and mechanical issues under the hood. Instead of dealing with these headaches, we recommend you look toward the Canon Pixma MX330, which will give you consistent performance and a variety of extra features for the same price.

We don't usually have much to say about the design of most Brother printers, but the MFC-490CW actually makes an effort to stand out. The chassis is small and maneuverable at 15.4 inches wide by 10 inches deep by 18.1 inches tall. After installing the parts, the MFC-490CW is still much less obtrusive than the 5890CN; you shouldn't have a problem fitting this into your workspace without clutter.

The control panel and the autodocument feeder are trimmed in a glossy, black finish that looks extra professional next to the matte, gray side paneling. The control panel in the center of the small multifunction pad has the mushy rubber buttons that we complained about on the MFC-5890CN, but the directional pad on this one gets the shiny, silver, plastic treatment that actually makes it easier to maneuver around the menus on the large 3.3-inch color LCD screen. The screen also swivels up and down at incremental notches to give you a variety of viewing angles.

Just to the left of the display, you'll see a complete numerical keypad, the on/off button, as well as redial and hook buttons for the standalone fax functions. Three function buttons for fax, scan, and copy sit just to the right of the LCD, with a fourth button labeled "photo capture" that opens a folder to display images on digital memory cards that you insert into the media reader about halfway down the front face of the printer. Acceptable formats include Compact Flash, SD, Memory Stick, and xD slots, and there's a PictBridge USB port as well to connect a digital camera directly.

The large drawer that pulls from the bottom of the device holds blank sheets of paper, and the top doubles as a landing on which finished prints come to rest. The glaring issue here is that the drawer sits flush in the printer and doesn't extend far enough out of the device, making it difficult to grab outbound prints from the output cavern. Brother forces you to squeeze your hand into this awkward, covered cave to retrieve smaller prints, so potential buyers with larger-than-average mitts should take this into consideration.

Like many of the other Brother printers, we still have complaints about the internal cable guide on the MFC-490CW; while the power port is easy to access on the left side of the rear panel, the USB and Ethernet ports sit inside the printer. For some reason, Brother forces you to open up the machine, prop up the lid with a plastic arm (similar to the arm on the hood of a car engine), snake the USB cable (not included in the box) through a small, plastic guide, and plug it directly into the internal components. Not only is this hassle unique to Brother, you also wind up losing more than a foot of cable slack as a result of the extensive internal looping. It feels counterintuitive to lift up the lid and expose the print head to serve no other purpose other than to plug in the USB cord. Thankfully, you can connect the printer to a desktop without wires at all using the built-in 802.11b/g wireless print server and the simple instructions on the driver.

The MFC-490CW uses a four-cartridge system with individual tanks for black, cyan, magenta, and yellow that load into the front bay. Brother offers standard- and high-yield cartridges on its Web site. However, we'll use the high-capacity price points and page yields for a cost-per-page analysis: color cartridges cost $17 for 750 pages and a black cartridge that'll last approximately 900 pages costs $32, according to Brother, which factors out to 2.2 cents per page of color and 3.5 cents for black. Those prices are just shy of the average cost to print on a $150 printer, but the Canon Pixma MX330 offers better print quality for the same price.

The drivers on the MFC-490CW installation disc give you the option to adjust the printer's quality settings from normal to fine, fast, or fast normal. In addition, you get a box to check natural versus vivid photo prints, and a unique "True2life" color enhancement tool with customizable changes to color density, white balance, contrast, brightness, and other settings. Finally, the driver also installs a status monitor that pops up during job processing to monitor ink cartridge levels and quality control, but it doesn't indicate the status of the spooling or the job progress.

Brother also gives you the option to install a third-party imaging application called "Paperport" by ScanSoft. This program lets you edit photos in a file-browsing setup similar to Apple's iPhoto, with basic photo-editing solutions for auto-enhancement, blemish erasing, and red-eye elimination. We played around with the software for awhile and enjoyed its simplicity compared with iPhoto. Don't expect editing quality on par with Adobe suites, however. Paperport is geared more for light users and amateur photographers with limited time and editing resources.

The printer's scanning, copying, and fax features all performed adequately, especially in conjunction with the 50-sheet ADF that can function without a computer connection. Scanning options include routing images to a file folder, e-mail, or an optical character recognition text translator. You also get four customizable buttons on the virtual Control Center that you can program to any preference. As always, we complain about the lack of a hinged scanner lid that makes it much easier to scan thick books and documents. Copying also works as a standalone device--you can set the magnification from 25 percent up to 400 percent of the original size, but the only two options for pagination are two pages on one sheet of paper and four pages on one sheet. The competition usually offers many more, including up to four images on one page, thumbnails, and two-sided prints.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any slower than the MFC-5890, along comes the MFC-490CW to break the record. The printer suffers the most embarrassing loss in the photo and text speed benchmarks, with .64 photos per minute and 2.99 pages per minute, respectively. Surprisingly, the results aren't terrible for the presentation or color graphics speed tests, and it actually finished printing our 10-page graphics presentation at a higher page per minute than all of the other competitive products in the lineup. The opposing marks are a little atypical, but we suspect the slower print speeds are the fault of the slowly taxing print head under the hood.

Printer Speed Test (in pages per minute)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Presentation Speed (PPM)  
Photo Speed (1 Sheet)  
Color Graphics Speed (PPM)  
Text Speed (PPM)  
HP OfficeJet J6480
Canon Pixma MX330
Kodak ESP5
Brother MFC-5890CN
Brother MFC-490CW

After analyzing the MFC-490CW's outbound prints, we're satisfied to report that the quality of our snapshots, text prints, and full graphic sheets are substantial improvements over Brother's previous models. Once again, we're surprised at these results, since we typically associate more money with better quality (in terms of printers), but in this case, the 490CW presents sharper lines and clearer, more defined letters in the black and color text samples. In addition, the color gamut on our graphics and text prints appears more evenly saturated and exempt from the blotchy color blends and white blocks that ruined the MFC-5890CW.

That being said, we're still not fully satisfied with these photos. We played around with several driver settings, like turning on the "vivid color" and "True2life" color settings, but the results still don't compare with evenly saturated photos produced by the Pixma MX330. The Brother can't seem to handle fine details like creases in clothing or light strands of hair. Finally, much of the 3-inch by 5-inch snapshots aren't as clearly defined as the MX330. In a dollar-to-dollar comparison, we much prefer the Canon's image quality to that of this Brother.

Service and support
Brother backs the MFC-5890CN with a two-year, limited warranty and offers access to its phone support from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific. We usually see one-year warranties bundled with printers, so we're sure buyers will appreciate and use the extra year of support. In addition to the hotline, Brother's online "Ask Us" program offers immediate e-mail replies for troubleshooting, and the company Web site provides more support by way of manuals, FAQs, service center locations, and software downloads.

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Brother MFC-490CW

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 5Performance 5Support 8